“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” Matthew 28:1-2
I’ve been preaching for 33 Easters now, but I don’t know that I’ve ever preached from Matthew’s gospel! Nothing against Matthew, it’s just that the lectionary holds a preference for John’s Gospel at Easter. John’s Easter account is longer and more involved, and there are more than enough preaching possibilities there for a lifetime of preaching.
But life is only 20 years, so after 33 years it’s time for a change...oh you can brand me a radical if you want, but hey, even Coke drinkers will crack open a can of Pepsi occasionally; and even a fastball pitcher will change it up and throw a slow ball now and then. So it’s time for something different this year - an Easter sermon based on Matthew’s account.
And the first thing we notice is that Matthew is a master storyteller! There’s vivid imagery and some character development here that not found in the other gospels. He provides details and dialogue to capture our imagination and evoke our emotion. Matthew draws us into the Easter story through the experience of the two Marys...Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James. They are the first ones on the scene on Easter morning so we experience Easter through them. And what we experience is fast paced and hard hitting. Easter is loud in Matthew’s gospel! If this were a musical score it would begin pianissimo and build up to fortissimo - a roll of kettle drums for the earthquake, a clash of cymbals when the soldier faints to the ground, and a blast of horns as an angel announces that Jesus has risen and the Hallelujah chorus when Jesus meets them face to face. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves...
Easter begins in Matthew’s gospel as it does in all the gospels - in darkness. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, walk to the tomb of Jesus while it’s still dark. They are silent, no conversation is recorded, but they don’t have to speak for us to know how they feel. We’ve taken that journey. We’ve been to the tomb.
Kate Sawford has been to the tomb. At the age of 11, she took one final walk on her two legs before hopped up on a hospital bed and was rolled into surgery to remove a tumor from her left leg. They took the tumor, and they took her knee, and they took a good bit of her thigh too. Even with the amputation, Kate only was only given a 50/50 chance of being cancer-free afterwards. In her book entitled Kate’s Story, she writes: “Days of my life I’d like to forget: the day the doctors told me I was sick. The day I had to tell my friends I was ill. The day my hair fell out. The first day after my surgery. They’re also the days I’ll always remember.” The journey to the tomb is a dark one!
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary made that journey...but as they walk they find they are walking, not into the darkness, but into the light. As they approach the tomb, a new day is dawning...just how new, they are about to see!
Just as they arrive, all heaven breaks loose - there’s an earthquake - the ground shakes and rolls beneath their feet and an angel descends from heaven and sits upon the stone...the very stone that sealed the tomb. It’s been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb! The angel is dressed in garments whiter than snow and with the appearance brighter than lightning. When the guards see the angel, they too shake, and become as dead men.
And the angel’s message to the women is this: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’”
The women leave the tomb quickly, gripped by fear and great joy and run to tell the disciples.
Fear and great joy - that’s an odd coupling of emotions, isn’t it? When is the last time you felt both fear and great joy at the same time? I’ve been thinking about that. I remember taking my two kids on a ride at Disney’s MGM studio many years ago now. It was called The Tower of Terror. They put us in a cart with just a simple metal bar across our hips to hold us in. The cart rolled all around inside this haunted house, scary things would pop out at us at every turn. It’s scary but not especially terrifying...until the end of the ride when the cart rolls right off a cliff and drops several stories down! Somehow, we managed to land at the bottom without injury or death. It was a miracle! And just when we thought the ride was over the cart was yanked straight up in the air...up, up, up you go in pitch darkness and at the height of the ride a huge window opens and you are overlooking the entire park! A camera flashed and snapped our picture at that very moment and then our cart did a freefall drop, down, down to the bottom again. Somehow, we survived the whole ordeal!
On the way out, we passed a booth where they displayed the picture of us taken from that window 13 stories up. We hadn’t planned on buying it but when we saw it we had to have it. We all had the most peculiar expressions on our faces...it was fear and great joy. We bought that photo and then lined up to take the ride one more time!
Fear and great joy don’t join hand often. They only come together when we are on the edge between life and death. If death seems certain we gravitate towards fear...and if life seems certain, we lean towards joy...when the outcome is uncertain you have both. The women in Matthew’s gospel express both because they don’t know which it is – is it life or death we are confronting here? Granted, the angel proclaims life - he says: “Jesus is raised from the dead... come see where he lay.” The problem is, an empty tomb isn’t especially convincing. Yes, the tomb is empty but where is Jesus? He could be risen or he cold simply be moved.
And that’s when things get wild. As they are running away from the tomb they bump right into the risen Christ! Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come face to face with Jesus! He says, “Chairete,” which the NRSV translates as “greetings” but a truer translation is “rejoice!” (see Phil 4:4) Jesus is telling them which reaction they should be showing! The two women fall to the ground and grab hold of his feet and he says to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” And this is the crescendo of the Easter story...because Easter happens right here for those two women. Fear gives way to joy because they’ve seen the risen Christ and they know he’s alive!
Carl Barth said, “Christians do not believe in the empty tomb but in the living Christ.” And he’s right. The women proclaim Christ is risen not because they saw the empty tomb, but because they encountered the risen Christ. And we don’t gather here on Easter Sunday on the strength of the empty tomb either...but because we too have experienced the risen Christ. Where do we experience the risen Christ? Do we have to go to Jerusalem to find him? No - the Easter message of Jesus is ‘tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
If you want to see Jesus...if you want to experience the presence of the risen Christ then go to Galilee. Galilee is the place where Jesus taught and healed and fed his people. Galilee is where the kingdom of God was proclaimed and lived out. The church continues that ministry still today so this is Galilee! If you want to experience the risen Christ then get involved in the teaching, healing, feeding ministry of Christ’s church! Jesus said: “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst.” (Matt. 18) The risen Jesus is experienced as we do the work of our Lord here and now.
Paul Scott Wilson, professor of homiletics at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, tells the story of four travelers who attended a conference in the Philippines. On the return trip, they were late leaving the conference and getting to the airport for their flight home. They grabbed their bags from the taxi and ran to the terminal. Rounding a corner, one of them knocked over the table on which a local girl had some items for sale. Not wanting to miss the flight the four of them ran on, cleared security and arrived at the gate before it closed.
As they walked across the tarmac to get on the plane, one of the four travelers stopped in his tracks. He couldn’t get on the plane after what they did to that little girl’s table back in the terminal. He had to go back and make things right. So, he bid farewell to his colleagues and he walked back into the terminal. He was glad he did. She was a 9-year old girl whose table they had knocked over and she was blind. She was having trouble re-setting things and some of the things they had knocked over were broken. He helped re-set her table and he gave her $50 from his wallet to pay for the items that were broken. As he walked away she asked him, “Sir, are you Jesus?”
Is he Jesus? No, he’s not...but that was her impression! You see, when we share the love of Jesus, and when we engage his mission, people get a glimpse of the risen Christ....not the crucified, dead and buried Jesus, but the risen, triumphant, glorious Lord of all... and that gives them Easter hope.
Jesus is alive and he says we will see him in Galilee. Have you seen him? Do you want to see him? Then share his love, live out his mission and you will...and others will too! For Christ is risen and goes before us to Galilee.